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State, federal lawmakers proposing childproof packaging for liquid nicotine refills

Karen Kasler/Ohio Public Radio

As electronic cigarettes are becoming more popular, the numbers of medical crises involving the liquid nicotine refills they use are rising dramatically. These emergencies have sparked a bipartisan effort to crack down on the products.

E-cigarettes use containers of liquid nicotine, and some are easy to open, often with screw-on caps.

Public health experts nationwide say there were fewer than 100 cases of non-lethal liquid nicotine poisoning in 2012 – that figure rose to 1300 cases in 2013 and skyrocketed to 4000 cases last year. There were 420 cases in January alone. Ohio has averaged 2 emergency room visits per month related to liquid nicotine in the last year – last month, there were 5. Half the victims in these incidents were kids 5 or younger.

And in December, a 10 month old New York boy died after drinking from his mother’s liquid nicotine refill bottle when she turned away for a moment. Experts say liquid nicotine products are particularly dangerous to young kids because they can come in brightly colored packages, and are often flavored like gummy bears, bubble gum or other candy or kid favorites.

Republican Sen. Shannon Jones of Springboro says child-proof packaging is required for other potentially dangerous substances such as mouthwash, aspirin and bleach – so they should be required for liquid nicotine refills as well. She has a bill in the Ohio legislature to require childproof packaging.

“A 20 pound child ingesting that entire container of bleach is not lethal,” Jones said. “But a half teaspoon of this flavored, candy scented and decorated bottle, a half teaspoon is lethal to that same child.”

Jones’ bill is one of several state measures across the country to crack down on liquid nicotine packaging.

There’s also a bill sponsored in Congress by Democratic US Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio that would require child-proof packaging for liquid nicotine refills and regulate labeling.

The e-cigarette industry is still new, and so there aren’t many rules on the sale, marketing and packaging of its products. Gregory Conley is the president of the American Vaping Association, which is supported by small and medium sized businesses in the vapor market. Conley says child-resistant packaging is an industry standard, and more companies are using this kind of packaging every month.  And Conley says since the industry operates nationally, the rules should come from Washington.

“That’s one thing – that’s an acceptable position,” Conley said. “But when you move into where each and every state health department can set their own rules and regulations, that’s dangerous territory, that’s a logistical and regulatory nightmare.”

But there’s another underlying concern here for some lawmakers – the candy flavors and smells in these liquid nicotine refills.

E-cigarette makers have said their products help smokers quit. However, big tobacco companies such as Altria, Lorillard and Reynolds American now sell brands of e-cigarettes as well.

Sen. Brown says 480,000 Americans are dying each year because of smoking-related diseases, and he says these flavored e-cigarette refills were created to entice younger people to pick up smoking.

“If the industry really believes what they say – that these are options to help people quit smoking – they should stop targeting children and they should target adults who are smoking and want to quit,” Brown said.

But Conley says he quit smoking four years ago with watermelon-flavored e-cigarettes, and that assuming the flavors are just targeting kids discounts the public health benefit that e-cigarettes can have.

“The same adults that are making the flavored vodka, flavored spirit industry the fastest growing segment of the liquor industry according to the Wall Street Journal,” Conley said. “Those same adults, when they quit smoking, many of them want a flavor option that breaks them away from the taste of tobacco.”

And Conley adds the American Vaping Association gets no support from either the big tobacco manufacturers or any major pharmaceutical companies.